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Manzoor Pashteen, leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement

I’ve been going back and forth to Pakistan a lot this year as I research for my forthcoming book, Karachi Vice, and work on other projects, including my first documentary film (details to come!). It has been a tumultuous period in Pakistani politics, with July’s election putting Imran Khan in power, amid a widespread crackdown on free expression. I’ve written various articles on these subjects over the course of the year, ranging from opinion pieces to more in-depth reported stories. Here are some links:

Under the watchful eye of the army (Index on Censorship)

This reported piece for Index on Censorship’s July 2018 issue (behind a paywall) looks at the drastic ramping up of restrictions on free speech in Pakistan.

Imran Khan has won over Pakistan, but the real power still lies with the army (Guardian)

This comment piece, written the day after July’s election, looks ahead to Imran Khan’s premiership and notes the role of the military in the election.

Imran Khan’s treatment of Asia Bibi is a dangerous betrayal (Guardian)

This comment piece looks at the plight of religious minorities in Pakistan, and the political response to a court verdict freeing Asia Bibi, a Christian woman serving time for blasphemy.

A spark in Pakistan (Prospect)

This long-form reported piece appeared in Prospect’s November 2018 issue. It looks at the emergence of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, a peaceful civil rights movement drawing attention to military and human rights abuses. The movement has been subject to a harsh crackdown. I interviewed the group’s young leader, Manzoor Pashteen, as well as others involved in the movement. (Clipping to come).

 

 

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adieI’m a huge radio nerd and Kate Adie fan, so was really delighted to have a couple of pieces on the BBC’s flagship show From Our Own Correspondent this year. The programme airs on Radio 4 and the World Service.

The first piece, which aired in October, tells the story of Ali (not his real name), a survivor of what has been dubbed Pakistan’s biggest sexual abuse scandal. He was one of hundreds of victims of a child abuse ring in the city of Kasur, in Punjab. But despite widespread media coverage of their case, justice has been elusive, and Ali and other survivors are facing social exclusion.

The second story, which also aired first in October, looks at the many internally displaced people in Iraq who are living in half-built construction sites in Erbil. Many of these buildings were abandoned by property developers when the conflict with ISIS began, and they have been repurposed as homes for the million people who lost their homes.

3977I am so delighted to announce that I’ve won the inaugural Portobello Prize for narrative non-fiction, which was set up to “showcase the most exciting new voices in narrative non-fiction, offering debut writers an opportunity to seek out and publish an untold story that reflects our times.” I entered with a proposal for a book about Karachi, building on some long-form pieces I’ve already written. (This piece on an ambulance driver, and this piece on a crime reporter, among others). It will follow ordinary lives through a chaotic period in the city’s recent history.

The inaugural Portobello Prize has been awarded to “electrifying new voice” Samira Shackle for Karachi Vice, a “fresh and thrilling” non-fiction exploration of Pakistan’s largest city.

According to the judges, this “glimpse of a city largely misrepresented and misunderstood is told with a clear sense of urgency and with a personal connection. It will place human drama at the fore as it follows the lives of several citizens of Karachi”.

Read more over at the Bookseller’s website. I now have to actually write the book, which will probably be out at some point in 2020.

580432c5406beI’ve written a few pieces about Pakistan in recent months.

Rising from the ashes: a new era in Pakistani cinema (emerge85)

I wrote this piece about Pakistani cinema’s “new wave” back in January. After a long lull – wracked by underfunding and a severe limitation of physical cinemas – Pakistani directors and writers are producing exciting and distinctive new movies. I also discussed the story on emerge85’s podcast.

Don’t be fooled by elections—the military is still in charge in Pakistan (Prospect)

On a less cheerful note, my column in the June issue of Prospect looks at the increasing limits on Pakistan’s democracy as the July election approaches and censorship of media outlets ramping up.

Under the watchful eye of the army (Index on Censorship)

For this report on the ongoing clampdown on free expression in Pakistan, I spoke with journalists who have been targeted by the establishment after criticising the military. The piece – in the Summer 2018 issue – is currently behind a paywall.

 

india_pakistan-620x413On the 14th and 15th August, Pakistan and India celebrated their respective Independence Days. This year, which marks 70 years since the Partition of India, the celebrations were accompanied by reflection. There has been a cultural reticence around discussion of the deep trauma inflicted by Partition – the ripple effects of which are still felt today.

In a piece for Prospect, I wrote about historians who are trying to gather oral histories of Partition – a project which is fast becoming a race against time as the last generation with vivid memories of this seismic event die out.

Oral history is particularly important given that there has been no major public reckoning with the seismic event of Partition. There are no memorials for the dead, no national reflection as there is today in Germany after the horrors of the Holocaust, no reconciliation committees as in Rwanda after the genocide. There are several possible reasons for this: not least the circumstances of Partition, which involved not only independence from years of subjugation but the birth of two new countries.

For The Pool, I wrote about the gender-specific traumas faced by women. In addition to a broader cultural reluctance to talk about Partition, these stories are hampered by stigma around sexual violence.

Urvashi Butalia, Indian feminist historian and author of The Other Side of Silence, has written about the gendered impact of Partition, and the need for a true engagement with this history: “Women were raped, kidnapped, abducted, forcibly impregnated by men of the ‘other’ religion, thousands of families were split apart, homes burnt down and destroyed, villages abandoned. Refugee camps became part of the landscape of most major cities in the north, but, a half century later, there is still no memorial, no memory, no recall, except what is guarded, and now rapidly dying, in families and collective memory.”

On a (slightly) more cheerful note, my 93 year old grandmother spoke to BBC Woman’s Hour about her own memories of Partition, when she was one of many privileged young women who joined the relief effort by working in refugee camps. You can listen online – she’s about 25 minutes in and is followed by a historian talking about the impact Partition had on women.

ensafFive years ago, Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison and 1000 lashes. His crime was starting a website that discussed liberal ideas. In June, I interviewed his wife, Ensaf Haidar, who now lives in Canada with their three children. She has been campaigning tirelessly for his release.

The think tank Freedom House has characterised the media environment in Saudi Arabia as one of the “most repressive in the world”; Badawi is one among dozens of prisoners of conscience. But, despite the risks associated with talking freely about politics and religion in her home country, Haidar is defiant. “I always thought Raif had the right to express his opinions and engage in whatever public debate he wanted to. My opinion hasn’t changed. I would do nothing differently if I could go back. This is the 21st century. It was his right.”

You can read the full interview over at The Pool.

As well as being a freelance writer, I am deputy editor of the New Humanist magazine and often cover issues related to free speech and secularism. (I’ve also written before about Raif Badawi’s case.)

I wrote a column in the latest issue of the New Humanist about the tragic death of another free-thinker, self-described humanist Mashal Khan who was murdered at his university halls in Mardan, Pakistan.

For all the public outpouring of grief and anger, there has been little attention paid to the law itself. Introduced by the British during colonial rule, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are among the world’s most repressive. Attempts at reform were halted entirely after the assassination of two politicians advocating the cause in 2011 – Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti.

The rest of the piece is here. I’ve been writing about Pakistan’s blasphemy laws for many years now – starting with this 2011 piece for the New Statesman. I’ve also written about violent attacks on atheists in Bangladesh. You can find more examples of my coverage on these issues elsewhere on the website.

gwadar

Illustration by Winnie T. Frick for Guernica

During a long trip to Pakistan last year, I visited Gwadar, a remote coastal town in the far reaches of Balochistan. This province is huge, underdeveloped and home to a long-running separatist insurgency. Gwadar, a remote outpost of a remote region, is the unlikely centre of geopolitical machinations. As part of a huge programme of economic cooperation, China and Pakistan are seeking to develop Gwadar’s deepwater port into a major shipping destination. This forms one part of the ambitious “China Pakistan Economic Corridor”, which will see a new trade route – stretching thousands of miles – go through the length of Pakistan, connecting China to lucrative Middle Eastern markets.

The area is tightly controlled by the military; I was on a press trip organised by the army. While the trip was designed to show that Gwadar is open for business, it was difficult to escape the disjunction between the language used by officials, and the anxieties of local people, who have a deep-seated – and well-justified – concern about displacement and about the resources of their province being stripped away. I wrote about the trip, and the troubled history of Balochistan, in a long essay for Guernica magazine.

He clicked onto the next slide, a circular chart detailing the military strategy in Balochistan. It was a crudely drawn dial under the title “People Centric Approach,” with a caption below reading, “Love Begets Love.” There were seven points on the dial. The first six all read, “Love,” in green lettering. The final point was in red. It read, “Selective Use Of Force.”

You can read the rest over at Guernica’s website.